Straight & Narrow

Conservatives' arguments against same-sex unions don't cut it.

Fri Nov. 21, 2003 4:00 AM EST

Conservatives are gearing up for a new phase of the culture wars, with same-sex marriage shaping up as as a key battle front. 

From the Heritage Foundation to Commentary Magazine, conservative America is in a panic over same-sex marriage. Beyond the name-calling and the homophobic froth, those in opposition to Massachusetts Supreme Court's recent step towards legalizing same-sex marriage are essentially concerned that gay unions undermine the sanctity of the institution of marriage, conceived as the sole preserve of straight partners.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In his sober commentary on Thursday's segment of NPR's Morning Edition, the National Review's Stanley Kurtz tries to make concerns about gay marriage appear moderate, not vehemently homophobic. For Kurtz, marriage is all about the children. "[Gay marriage] would create ... a whole new class of marriages that cannot by themselves produce children. It would break apart the symbolic connection between marriage and parenthood," Kurtz explains.

The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that many straight couples can't have children or choose not to want to have children -- without this, presumably, defiling the institution. As Steven Waldman, the editor of Beliefnet writes in Slate, if you want to be consistent, you have to roll back a whole lot of other social changes.

"But if non-procreative sex is the issue, society started down the slippery slope not with the recent Supreme Court ruling but with production of the pill -- or, really, even earlier, when birth control became common. We've been into the non-procreative sex thing for some time now. Even most religious conservatives don't have the heart to go after this. If sex without the possibility of creating life is wrong, then religious leaders would have to go back to warring against masturbation. And what about sex among the infertile? Or sex among people over 70? Only the Catholic Church has maintained logical consistency, gamely reasserting its opposition to birth control on those same grounds as recently as this week."

But some conservatives, and not just Catholics, are arguing precisely this -- that the whole moral drift of American society needs to be reversed. This, for instance, from the editors of the National Review:

"The erosion of marriage in our law and culture helped carry the Massachusetts court to its conclusion. The court recognizes that we have severed many of the links among marriage, sex, and the raising of children. But it does not follow from that indisputable premise that our law and culture do not link these things at all, or that they should not link them. A court could just as easily conclude that to the extent that the courts themselves have broken these links, they should go back and re-create them. It could just as easily conclude that the people of Massachusetts have conflicting and sometimes inconsistent views about the nature of marriage, and that the law may reflect that muddle without needing judicial correction."

A basic problem for conservatives, who by definition want to return to the settled values of a notional bygone age, is that it's well-nigh impossible to pin those values down. The symbols of marriage and child-rearing so dear to Kurtz and others have never been static. As E. J. Graff, a contributing editor for the American Prospect writes, interracial marriages, let alone multiracial offspring were once thought to produce retarded or infertile children.

"Don't believe the propaganda that says marriage has always been a static, solid pillar of society. Marriage has always been a social battleground, hotly contested, its rules shifting for each era and economy, each culture and class. The only thing that's remained static about marriage is its name -- and the kind of vitriol it inspires whenever there's a change to its rules.

Do all these prophecies of doom sound familiar? They should. Threats of incest, polygamy, orgiastic immorality and, of course, that perennial favorite, the destruction of the first-born -- these are the curses traditionally invoked when the rules of marriage change. Listen closely to their words and you'll hear that angry doomsayers are leveling an implicit threat: If you disobey me, you and your children will wither, and all civilization will collapse."

Kurtz is rightly concerned that children should, as far as possible, have a stable family structure. With fifty percent of American marriages ending in divorce, and so many single-parent families, conservatives worry that gay marriage will make things even tougher for American kids. All the more reason to put gay relationships on a legal footing, write William B. Rubenstein and R. Bradley Sears in an op-ed in the New York Times. They note that the 2000 census found that there are approximately 600,000 same-sex couples living together in the United States.

"Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that recognition of such unions undermines the sanctity of marriage, harms children and demoralizes society. There is no evidence of any of this — or of any other harmful impact — in Hawaii, Vermont or California. On the contrary, studies have shown that parents' sexual orientation doesn't hurt their children. As the census shows, gay people are already parents to hundreds of thousands of children. Aren't those children better off if their family's relationships are protected by law?"

Kurtz warns that if gays were allowed to marry in this country we might end up in the perilous situation of families in Scandinavia, where, he claims, "marriage is slowly dying." Sweden and Norway have had gay civil union laws for a decade. According to Kurtz, a majority of children in Sweden and Norway are born out of wedlock, and unmarried parents break up at a rate two to three times greater than married couples. Kurtz connects the high out of wedlock rate to the "disillusionment of marriage" caused by gays are registering for civil unions. Maybe there's a correlation, and maybe there's not, but Kurtz doesn't clinch it one way or the other.

Weak arguments aren't the only challenge conservatives face in making same-sex marriage a galvanizing. Another is disunity in the ranks. Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and conservative, writes on his blog:

"One under-reported aspect of the issue of equal marriage rights is how divided conservatives are. ...

[I]t is simply untrue that non-lefties and non-liberals all oppose this reform. The religious right may have taken over the institutional Republican Party. They may control the editorial voice of magazines like the Weekly Standard and National Review. But their shrill and deepening hostility to gay citizens and their adamant refusal to extend equal rights to them is not the only conservative voice out there. The president and vice-president have equally not engaged in the demonization of gay people that is becoming the core principle of far right groups like the Family Research Council. There is diversity here - and a rigid attempt to enforce a constitutional amendment will split conservatives just as surely as it will unite liberals. Is that something that's really in the interests of this administration?"   

Some gay people, if they had the option, would of course opt out  (a freedom they are currently denied). As Dan Savage, of the acclaimed sex advice column, "Savage Love," writes for Salon, he and his boyfriend have no plans to get hitched.

"Has anyone noticed that making a big, public stink about your big, beautiful gay relationship is the KISS OF DEATH? Remember Bob and Rod Jackson-Paris, the 'married' gay bodybuilders, with their coffee table 'art' books and their cringe-inducing memoir about their big, beautiful gay relationship? Speaking of cringe-inducing, who can forget Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche on 'Oprah,' blathering on about being each other's 'wives' after they'd been together for, what, four days? Or Melisssa Etheridge and Julie Cypher on Larry King going on about David Crosby's sperm? Some more-recent casualties: B.D. Wong wrote about adopting a child and then promptly broke up with his partner after the book tour. Bob Smith closed his comic memoir, 'Openly Bob,' with the uplifting story of how he finally found love in the arms of Mr. Right. His next book was about their breakup. Chip and Dale, the good-looking guys on 'The Amazing Race,' who insisted they were married? They broke up. Liza Minnelli and David Gest? That big, beautiful gay relationship is over too.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.